Soldiers can now earn up to two years' worth of college credits toward their bachelor's degrees — just by attending Army professional military education courses.
The American Council on Education recently completed its latest assessment of noncommissioned officer education system courses, resulting in increased credit recommendations, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, the commandant of the Army Sergeants Major Academy.
"They recommended a lot more credit hours than we've had in the past," Defreese said, adding that this is good news for soldiers.
"It affects every enlisted soldier in the Army because the minute they graduate AIT, they are enrolled in [Structured Self Development 1]. They're already earning credits possibly toward that degree."
Many of the Army's education courses "already had a certain level [of credits], but as we're increasing the academic rigor of the different NCOES courses, we have [ACE] come back periodically and reassess," he said.
The Army also gained credits for new courses, such as Structured Self Development 2, which was evaluated for the first time this year. ACE recommended soldiers who complete the course earn three credits toward an associate's degree.
Also newly evaluated this year was the Battle Staff NCO Course; ACE recommended it be worth up to eight credits for that undergraduate degree.
In all, the Army's common core NCOES courses, from Structured Self Development 1 up to the Sergeants Major Course, can earn a soldier as many as 61 credit hours. That's equivalent to about two years of college. Soldiers can earn even more credit through military occupational specialty-specific courses.
These new recommendations also save soldiers money, said Sgt. Maj. Robert Hixson, deputy director of the training department at the Sergeants Major Academy.
"That's tuition money you don't have to pay," he said. "The credits have to be done, one way or another."
In addition, college credits also translate into promotion points for aspiring sergeants and staff sergeants, Defreese said. The point vary by MOS and the number of credits a soldier has, he said.
ACE is one of the most visible and influential higher education associations in the country, according to its website. It evaluates programs for virtually every college across the country that has regional or national accreditation.
Colleges and universities across the country don't have to honor credit recommendations from ACE, but many of them do, including schools that are part of the GoArmyEd program.
More than 2,400 institutions are part of that program, including Kansas State University, Austin Peay State University, Texas A&M University, University of Maryland University College, Troy University, University of Louisville — College of Education and Human Development, Virginia State University, Columbus State University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The Army has partnered with many of these colleges and universities for a long time, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tedd Pritchard, the deputy commandant of the Sergeants Major Academy.
"They recognize our service members," he said.
The Army works to have ACE evaluate its courses regularly, Hixson said.
"As a program of instruction is modified, changed or updated to reflect changes in doctrine or weapon systems, every few years ACE is invited back to do an evaluation of the program," he said.
ACE evaluations aren't limited to just NCOES courses, said Jeffrey Colimon, chief of the learning integration division at the Institute for NCO Professional Development.
"We want to ensure all the courses that meet the minimum criteria for evaluation are reviewed by ACE for the potential award of college credit," he said.
This could include MOS-specific courses or technical training, Colimon said.
For this year's ACE evaluation, a team of five academics from universities across the country conducted a detailed review of the Army's courses. The team then visited the Sergeants Major Academy to finalize its evaluation. The entire process took about eight months, Hixson said.
Now that the team's recommendations are final, the updated list of courses and credit recommendations are put into the Army's system as well as Joint Services Transcript, Defreese said.
JST is computerized transcript system that produces official transcripts for eligible soldiers by combining a soldier's military education and job experience with descriptions and college credit recommendations developed by ACE.
The transcript also includes the soldier's current or highest enlisted rank, additional skill identifiers and skill qualification identifiers, formal military courses completed, and MOS held.
"It goes into the system so any university that has an agreement with the Army can go in there and see what the recommended credits for a certain course are," Defreese said.
The last time ACE evaluated an Army course was in 2012, when it looked at the Sergeants Major Course, Hixson said.
"We've made courses like the Sergeants Major Course so much more academically challenging that we needed them to come back," Defreese said.
That shows in the recent ACE evaluation. The Sergeants Major Course is worth nine lower division college credits and 16 upper division credits, for a total of as many as 25 credits toward a bachelor's degree. Lower division credits can count toward either an associate's or bachelor's degree. Upper division credits only count toward a bachelor's. The previous ACE evaluation recommended nine lower division credits and 15 upper division credit hours.
Much of the tougher, more academically challenging changes to the Army's education courses is tied to the service's ongoing NCO 2020 initiative, which is "reshaping how we teach," Defreese said.
"Our goal is to make, train and educate our leaders to be agile and adaptive in a changing world," he said.
Many of the changes also have to do with how young people today learn, he said.
"For us older people, we learned on chalkboards," Defreese said. "Now everything's interactive and on tablets. We're aligning ourselves with how the students are most apt to learn."
The Army also is shifting its priorities inside the classroom, said Charles Guyette, director of the training department at the Sergeants Major Academy.
"We've gone from a task-based environment to an education-based environment," he said, adding that there is more emphasis on research, analysis and writing.
Instead of just having soldiers memorize information, the Army's courses now demand that they analyze, learn and demonstrate that they understand the material, he said — just like in a college classroom.
"It's not just learning by rote," he said.
The Army's goal is to try to help soldiers when they transition from the service, Defreese said.
"About 50 or 60 percent of all soldiers get out after their first or second term," he said. "For us, our biggest challenge is making sure those young soldiers are not disadvantaged for their time in the Army."